Feminist journalist Sophia Huang and fellow activist Wang Jianbing are in the custody of police in the southern Chinese province of Guangzhou, preventing Huang's planned departure to study overseas, the Chinese rights group Weiquanwang reported on Monday.
Huang had planned to leave China via Hong Kong on Sept. 20 for the U.K., where she planned to take a master's degree in development with a prestigious Chevening Scholarship, the Weiquanwang report said.
Wang, who is a labor and healthcare rights activist, had planned to see her off on her journey, but both activists had been incommunicado since Sept. 19.
Both are being held under "residential surveillance at a designated location (RSDL)," on suspicion of "incitement to subvert state power," Weiquanwang said.
Their whereabouts remain unknown.
Reports indicate that the main reason for their detention was a daily gathering of friends at Wang's home. Five other people have reportedly also been detained in connection with their case, Weiquanwang said.
A person familiar with the case told RFA that five "people who have taken part in related activities had been detained so far for questioning, and ordered to switch off their cell phones.
Huang and Wang's families have yet to receive formal notification of their detention, the person said.
A Chinese lawyer who asked to remain anonymous said the time limit for RSDL is currently six months.
"During that period, the authorities can convert to different kinds of compulsory measures like release on bail pending trial or formal arrest, or release," the lawyer said. "What happens depends on how the authorities want to handle the case."
A lawyer who gave only the surname Li said the authorities are increasingly making use of RSDL to hold people incommunicado pending investigation.
"It is being increasingly used over the past few years ... because criminal detention has ... 37-day time limit, but RSDL is a way for them to extend the length of time that police can detain people for," Li said.
'They get to decide'
Beijing-based dissident Ji Feng said RSDL has been normalized now, and can be deployed by the authorities at will.
"It can last a week, a month, three months, or six months," Ji said. "It's entirely up to them."
"It depends whether they think [the detainee] is cooperative or obedient, and they get to decide how long it lasts," he said.
Before being targeted by the authorities in 2019, Huang had been an outspoken member of the country's #MeToo movement, and had carried out a survey of sexual harassment and assault cases among Chinese women working in journalism.
Huang was present at a million-strong protest in Hong Kong on June 9, 2019 against plans to allow extradition to mainland China, and was detained for "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble" in October 2019, before being released on bail in January 2020, a status that often involves ongoing surveillance and restrictions on a person's activities.
Her travel documents were also confiscated after her return, preventing her from beginning a law degree in Hong Kong in the fall of 2019.
Huang had previously assisted in the investigation and reporting of a number of high-profile sexual harassment allegations against professors at Peking University, Wuhan University of Technology, Henan University and Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou.
Wang started to work in rural development after graduating in 2005, before joining the Guangzhou Gongmin NGO in 2014 and director and coordinator for youth work.
In 2018, he started advocacy and legal support work on behalf of workers with occupational diseases, and was a vocal supporter of China's #MeToo movement.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By Man Hoi Yan.